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Hearthstone interview: Demon Hunters and making the game faster

Prior to the release of Hearthstone's Ashes of Outland expansion, we spoke to Blizzard's Stephen Chang and Hadidjah Chamberlin about the new Demon Hunter and also the debate of showing off something cool versus keeping the game flowing.


Hearthstone's Ashes of Outland expansion has been out for a full week and Blizzard's card game certainly feels different than it ever has. Players are living in a brave new world of Demon Hunters, exploring Hearthstone's 10th playable class, while also adjusting to a new Standard year and learning the many new cards released with the new expansion.

Shacknews is still getting adjusted to the new expansion ourselves, but with a week of action in the can, we felt it was a good time to visit one of our recent chats with a pair of Hearthstone's top developers. We had a chance to speak with designer Stephen Chang and VFX artist Hadidjah Chamberlin back when the expansion was first announced. We talked about some of the making of Demon Hunter, some of the visual changes to Hearthstone, and a lot of the behind-the-scenes involving the game's visual effects.

(The following interview took place prior to the release of Ashes of Outland and prior to the Demon Hunter's introduction to Hearthstone.)

Shacknews: Hearthstone has grown a lot over the past five years, but this is the first time we're seeing a whole new class being added to the game. What made this the right time to introduce the Demon Hunter?

Hadidjah Chamberlin, Hearthstone Lead VFX Artist: A big part of it is, yeah, the game's been around for a while. Adding something as big as a new class is really cool and exciting. Also, in the time that the game has been live, we've had a lot of time and opportunities to see feedback from players about the different classes, see what players enjoy about each of the classes and, from our own side, really think about what we want each of the class identities to be and have some time to start honing each of those identities. Part of that is, you get to see where there's still opportunities for these cool new play styles, so we can build a class around that and have it fit in really nicely with everything else, without stepping on anything else's toes, with everything still feeling different and playing different and giving players even more options. It's this whole perfect storm of reasons, now's just really good and I'm super stoked about it.

Stephen Chang, Hearthstone Game Designer: It's also one of those things where it's like, we like working on things that excite us as a team. It's something that someone pitched and we were like, "Can we do that? We can do this!" And we started exploring it, like everything was in place, having a good way to introduce the class. There are a lot of decisions and questions that come about when introducing a new class. We had to modify the UI, we had to think about the Hero Power, we had to think about how the Demon Hunter cards look, there were a lot of different decisions, but everyone on the team was super excited to explore this space and there's a lot of excitement behind bringing a new class to Hearthstone.

Chamberlin: It is very much one of those "full team" things, which is always cool when you get something like that, where it's like everybody's able to dive in on it and get excited and put their hands in it.

Shacknews: What opportunities does the Demon Hunter offer, in terms of presentation? How will it stand out from the other nine classes?

Chang: We really wanted to capture the essence of Demon Hunter as being this really fast, agile, aggressive type of character, which is something people think about when they think about Demon Hunters. They're on the front lines, they're also jumping on the back lines. The way we captured that initially was through the Hero Power, the 1-Mana Hero Power, the first time we've ever done that for one of the classes. It was a really exciting space to explore, it makes them feel proactive because they're constantly attacking and a lot of the cards activate after they attack. They're leading the charge and their minions are following and taking that example.

We're also able to explore two other archetypes for Demon Hunter. One is the idea of Soul Magic, where they're sacrificing these minions to create these very powerful effects. It plays out differently than other classes that have archetypes that might buff them to end the game, but Demon Hunter will trade the minions and get a powerful bonus from that. They also play into the control archetype, as well, where they have these giant Demons that side with them to fight the Burning Legion. And they play a more control style with AOE (area-of-effect) where they can recruit these Demons that come out a bit quicker and have very powerful effects. So there's a lot of different areas that we can explore mechanically within the game for Demon Hunters.

Shacknews: How is the team approaching design for the various Demon Hunter minions and Legendaries?

Chang: Once we shored up the idea of what the idea of the fantasies we want to hit for the various archetypes, we started honing in on the class identity for Demon Hunter. What are they strong at? What are they weak at? From there, we design cards in those spaces. Because it was a new class, we had the flexibility of iterating on it. We could change things. At some point, we didn't have a lot of AOE in the control class, but then we realized it's very difficult to have a control class that didn't have AOE, so we gave them Chaos Nova and Immolation Aura. We had the flexibility to refine and define their class identity as we were developing it, so it was super interesting to have those options, whereas an established class had different rules that had been established in the past. But for Demon Hunters, we got to define those rules as we were developing it.

Chamberlin: I think something else that's definitely true in design, true of across all of the teams on art, as well, has just been trying to make sure we nail the fantasy. We want to make sure you feel like a Demon Hunter, because it's such an iconic class in WoW (World of Warcraft). Translating that over to Hearthstone, both on the design side and on the art side, has been this really, really cool process of identifying and distilling down the most essential parts of what makes something look and feel like a Demon Hunter and translating that into the Hearthstone space. You have the very fast and aggressive decks, you have cards like Kayn Sunfury that even lets you dodge around Taunt for a little while, and I feel like design-wise it nailed the fantasy. Also, there's really cool stuff like the Outcast keyword, which means the positioning of cards in your hand matter. There's a lot of really cool ways where you're just constantly making these choices, like over and over every turn when you're playing with Demon Hunter. You've got it with Outcast cards and exactly when you play them and what order you play them in. You've got it with the Soul Magic token archetype, suddenly the order that you attack in and whether you trade your minions and when you play something like Feast of Souls really starts to matter. It makes the whole thing feel very agile and clever and it's been such a fun archetype to play with in that regard.

Shacknews: What's your favorite Demon Hunter card so far?

Chamberlin: Going back to the fantasy element of it, Metamorphosis is as Demon Hunter as you can get. I think it's fun mechanically, because you get this super powerful Hero Power, but you only get it for two uses, so how you spend those uses really matters. You could use it to burst down the hero if you want, but you could also use it to get a particular minion off of the board or stuff like that or you could hold onto it if you want to save it for later. It's this very exciting moment that you could use in a bunch of different ways that was also fun to make the effects for! It's like all of the things that you want in a Demon Hunter crammed into one, you've got the wings and tattoos and all of it. I'm a little biased on that part.

Chang: I have too many. Of the Basic ones, Twin Slice is super cool just because you can weave it in anywhere. It can that extra bit of damage you need to take out a minion or you could get multiple attacks from it. Kayn, as we mentioned, is just super spicy. One of of the other cool Legendaries is Altruis the Outcast because you can get some pretty insane turns where you're playing a card on the right and it's an Outcast card and it draws you a card, and you can play another card on the right and that might be an Outcast card, and you could have some of these insane turns where you're doing so many different things in the turn and it almost feels like Miracle Rogue in that sense, where you could be drawing a bunch of cards and doing a lot of things that you didn't expect at the start. But you want to get it going and once it starts happening, you can get some insane burst turns that you can get from those cards.

Shacknews: Not too long ago, there was an update for Battlegrounds that saw effect timers lowered and that's something that's found its way into the core game. How closely do the teams from the core game and Battlegrounds work together for features that might benefit one or both game modes?

Chamberlin: Closely. The designers for Battlegrounds are also part of set design. Conor Kou has been heading up a lot of the Battlegrounds stuff. That's been his primary focus for a long time now, but we've also got people from set design helping out, playtesting, and suggesting stuff. On the art and engineering side, as well, we're all shared resources and we're all working on anything and everything in the game, which I think is really fun.

That's how the timer thing wound up coming about. We've talked about it in the past, because exactly what the best way to make the game faster and more fluid is something we've discussed for a while. Battlegrounds was something where we had more freedom to really test some of those faster animations and see that it's still readable and stuff like that. In that case, it was this really cool instance where it accidentally became this proving ground for something that then goes on to positively influence the rest of the game. Those sorts of really organic influences back and forth is something I think comes naturally with having everyone looking at everything and working on everything. And it's one of my favorite parts of game dev.

Chang: I think we approach it as we're all working on Hearthstone. There are various modes in Hearthstone, different ways to play Hearthstone, and ultimately, we're just trying to create the best game possible. Whether it's the expansions, whether it's Ranked mode, Solo Adventures, Battlegrounds, it's all part of Hearthstone and we all contribute towards all of it in various ways. To different amounts, but ultimately, it's all about trying to create the best experience possible for our players.

Shacknews: Lastly, and I feel like this might affect you more, Hadidjah, how do you find a balance when it comes to designing a really cool visual effect for a new card and making sure it doesn't eat up too much time? Because you are trying to make a faster, more fluid game. But at the same time, if you've got something cool to show off, you've gotta show it off, right?

Chamberlin: I'm probably gonna hit the time limit on this.

Shacknews: Go for it.

Chamberlin: Alright, let's go!

There are a lot of things that go into that. Some of it comes down to frequency. That's where things like trigger bubbles speed up. It happens a lot. As we have more and more ways for those sorts of interactions to happen and chaining stuff like that, it's a compounding problem. That's something where we really wanted to make sure that we sped it up, so that everything feels more fluid.

On the other side of things, we've got these really big moments, where there's really no way for them to happen a lot. Things like Highkeeper Ra, which is like a seven-second animation. But you can't chain Highkeeper Ras, unless somebody in Wild has been up to something crazy that I haven't seen. That's something where it's not going to stack on itself. And it's a moment where you've worked hard for it, so you want to feel really cool and that's something where we tend to lean in more towards the ceremony and the fantasy of the moment. Those are the extreme examples.

Obviously, there's a lot of stuff in the middle where we're talking about a bunch of different things. We're talking about with a lot of Legendary custom summons, where we're basing how quickly those resolve on things like, does it have Charge or Rush, is it part of a combo this turn, is it something you throw on the board and get a payoff later? Something that's part of an immediate combo, we try to make sure it happens a little bit faster. Something that is either a big body or it's effects won't kick in until later, we might play up that moment a little bit more. The stat lines of the card can affect that. How significant the card is, lore-wise, will affect that. Things like Kayn, we want to make sure they feel cool and reminiscent of who they are in WoW. Kayn's definitely an interesting example, because you want him in a lot of combos, so you want probably want room to play a bunch of cards quickly after him. So he does come in quickly. It's always a balance of what are the mechanics here, what is the gameplay surrounding this, how frequently does this happen, it's a bunch of different things like that.

There's also just, back to the speed-ups and fluidity and stuff, there are a lot of things that we're still talking about, as far as places where we feel like Hearthstone's pacing isn't what we want. There are still weird stacking issues with interrupts and stuff that we want to keep looking at and figure out ways to fix those so that the game is faster, but also so that the pace matches the fantasy. There are situations where the interrupt is very important for order of operations and making sure the player has a very clear cause and effect. But there are also ones where it's just a weird hitch that maybe exists because of the way everything is set up in the bones of the game right now. In the grand scheme of things, there are things there that we want to make better so that you don't have moments that yank you out of the game. I think idle animations, in some cases, are a very good case for that, because in general, I think idle animations are super cool because you have all the cool casting stuff going on, but they're also still a big source of slowdowns that we really want to find the right way to fix. That one's been tricky, because it's one of those situations where it is just deep in the bones of how this game was built. But there's a lot of stuff like that we're very much aware of and talking about and want to make better.

Those are the eye-level things that we tend to talk about, frequency and whether or not they can create these big chains. We're pretty honest about acknowledging those certain cards that are meme cards and have a meme effect that goes along with that. People usually fight over those ones.

Shacknews: Yogg-Saron used to be a big one, back in Old Gods.

Chamberlin: Yeah, he was a good meme boy.

Chang: A little too good.

Shacknews: Shudderwock was another one. I remember Shudderwock was taking so long, Kripparrian was just getting up and taking walks. It got so bad, the team had to issue an animation fix. How does the team handle those sorts of issues? Is that something the team just tries to come up as quickly as possible? How does that process work?

Chamberlin: It depends. In the specific case of Shudderwock... Shudderwock was a tricky one, because there weren't many effects that we could safely mess with because they all belonged to someone else! So Shudderwock, it was very much about identifying the thing that we can fix that would have a meaningful impact, no matter what. In that case, the biggest thing was the speed of that Battlecry flair. So that was what we sped up there, because that was one of those things that was causing these constant three-quarter second breaks and that just really compounded, because it would happen every single time, no matter which effects you were really getting out of it. Shudderwock is one of the crazier ones because there was such a range of things that could happen, so with him, a lot of it was drilling down and being like, "Okay, the Battlecry flair we can fix."

There was one other card where we changed the effect and that was Lifedrinker. Because that one was... well, we're seeing it in every instance of Shudderwock, so that effect has absolutely no reason it can't be that fast. It's a small minion, it's not a Legendary or anything, it's not something that we needed to create a moment around, and it was in every single instance of that. So that was something we could point at and be like, "Yeah, this is a good fix." No one was going to feel worse for it or feel like the card was less cool.

In a lot of cases, it's a little more straightforward than that, because you're probably looking at a card and the effect associated with that card and Shudderwock was one of the funnier ones in the case. But it can also involve so many different teams, too. A lot of times, it'll wind up being FX and gameplay engineering working together, because usually at that point, we're running into something that we've accidentally broken. A system with an edge case where, overall the system works great, but we accidentally pushed it too far one way or another. So coming up with the right way to fix that tends to be very collaborative and tends to be different every time.

Hearthstone: Ashes of Outland is available now. If you need some tips to play Demon Hunter tips, we have those for you. And if you're interested in trying out a few new decks, we have a few recommendations.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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